A book with a number in the title: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
A stunning masterpiece by Hosseini—I could not put this book down. Although it is full of tragedy, it is written so beautifully that you feel not only can you absorb it, you must. A Thousand Splendid Suns documents the lives of two very different women growing up and surviving in Afghanistan. Although these women came from very different walks of life, they end up on the same path together. In significant ways, they each help the other survive the cruelest and most heart breaking aspects of life during wartime. While the lives of Mariam and Laila serve as a microcosm for the struggles of Afghani women through such turbulent times.
Mariam is the bastard daughter of a wealthy man in a small town. Rather than accept Mariam and deal with the gossip and shame of his indiscretion, her father builds a small isolated hut where she and her mother live. He visits them weekly and while he insures that they have enough for their physical needs, Mariam’s mother (now a ruined woman) feels that her life has been destroyed and she is bitter and resentful toward her father. Mariam, however, worships him—even though her mother does her best to highlight his injustices. When Mariam reaches adolescence, she requests that her father take her out (in public) to see the film Pinocchio. When her father balks, Mariam begins to see for the first time what her mother has ranted about all these years. She sets the date, and when her father doesn’t show, she is devastated. Without thinking, she walks to town and demands to see him. Her father refuses and she sleeps outside like a dog all night. In the morning, she returns home to find her mother has hung herself. Mariam briefly lives with her father before his legitimate wives demand that she be removed from the home. Coward that he is, her father sells her off to an older, abusive man to be his wife.
Mariam moves to Kabul, far from her native home, and suffers at the hands of an awful husband. He abuses her mentally, physically, and emotionally. Mariam has a glimmer of hope when she becomes pregnant, but she loses the baby and every subsequent child she conceives. Each failure to produce a child brings more wrath upon her from her husband. She closes in on herself and suffers years in his shadow.
Hosseini provides us chronology of political, social, and religious upheaval in Afghanistan during this time frame. We are with Mariam in the mid 1970’s and follow the storyline of both women up through 9/11 and beyond. We see the Taliban take control against the wishes of the wishes of the people and rule with an iron fist.
Laila, about 15 years or so younger than Mariam, lives on her street in Kabul. We see Laila have a privileged childhood with parents who love her and provide an education for her. Laila has a very strong future, and she is in love with a neighborhood boy named Tariq. We watch her (somewhat) idyllic childhood progress until she is about fifteen years old. The Taliban has taken control of things and live has become unbearable. Tariq and she have declared their love for one another, and Tariq asked to marry and take her away. Her parents refuse to leave Kabul, so Laila refuses on the grounds that she must stay and care for her parents even though it breaks her heart. Tariq leaves, and a few weeks later Laila’s parents are moved into action when a bullet narrowly misses striking her in the head while she stands in her front year. They finally agree to move to Pakistan and then onward to the US for their own safety. As the family is moving their belongings out to the yard to put into the taxi that will take them away to a better life, a rocket falls on Laila’s house. It kills both of her parents and wounds her severely. Laila is now an orphan, totally alone in the world.
Mariam’s awful husband manages to dig her out of the rubble and offers to house her until she recovers. Mariam nurses her back to health under the watchful eye of her husband. A few weeks later, a man claiming to have been in the hospital with Laila’s love Tariq calls upon her to let her know he was injured in a bombing and died. Heartbroken, Laila becomes desperate. Now she truly has no direction. Mariam’s husband uses this advantage to con Laila into marrying him and becoming his second wife. Although he is completely repulsive, Laila has a secret—she is carrying Tariq’s baby, and before she begins to show, she will marry this monster to give her baby a somewhat stable home.
Over the next several years, Laila is subjected to the abuse of this monster. She has a daughter (Tariq’s) and a son (her husband’s). Mariam and she start off on horrible terms, but through Laila and her children, Mariam is transformed. Never having been truly loved before, Mariam is transported to a new world when Laila’s children become part of her life. The women bond in the face of their husband’s cruelty. They decide to try an escape, but the rules of the Taliban have come down so hard that they fail. They are caught, beaten, and their husband almost kills them. He threatens to do so if they ever attempt to run again.
So the abuse continues with no end in sight, until one day, Tariq shows up at Laila’s door. She realizes then that her husband paid someone to lie about his death so she would marry him. She confesses to Tariq that he is the father of her daughter, and they make plans to be together. When Laila’s husband returns home that night and discovers that Laila saw her former lover in his house, he is furious. He beats her nearly to death before Mariam strikes him in the head with a shovel, killing him once and for all. Laila plans to leave with Mariam, Tariq, and the children to flee Afghanistan. However, Mariam refuses. She knows the retribution of the Taliban will be swift, and it will probably kill them all unless she turns herself in. In the bravest moment of the novel (which is full of brave moments), Mariam turns herself in and faces execution for the crime of killing her husband.
Laila, freed by her sacrifice, flees with Tariq and the children. They marry and start a new life outside of Afghanistan. Once the Taliban is removed from rule, they decide to return and help the country pick up the pieces in whatever way they can. Laila makes one last stop in Mariam’s hometown to say goodbye. She visits the home of Mariam’s teacher who has passed away, but his son is home and gives Laila a gift that was mean for Mariam. It’s a tin with a letter from her father, a cassette of the movie Pinocchio, and a small inheritance. In his final letter, Mariam’s father expresses his regret at not standing up and claiming her, and hopes to make amends before she dies. Tragically, the letter never reached Mariam, but Laila uses the money to fund a local orphanage and do good works in Mariam’s name. While life isn’t perfect as we wrap up this novel, it is definitely on a path toward goodness as Laila’s family and all of Afghanistan attempts to rebuilt themselves to a better way of life.
Through reading this novel, I have learned so much about Afghani history, culture, and philosophical thought that I never would have known otherwise. I found it fascinating. The endurance, hope, and positivity of the women who survived the tragedies during this time period are both heartbreaking and uplifting. Hosseini highlights both the beauty and the horror of Afghanistan’s struggles in this novel.